Most of the prisoners at the Comayagua jail in Honduras had not been charged with a crime, let alone convicted, an internal government report sent to the United Nations and seen by the Associated Press shows. At least 300 inmates were killed and 21 injured in a late-night fire at the prison Tuesday.
According to strict Honduran anti-gang laws, a person can be imprisoned simply for having a tattoo, the Guardian reports. The United Nations has called this a violation of international law.
Unconvicted inmates have died in prison fires in Latin America before, including in 2005, when a fire in a Dominican Republic prison killed 133 people, two-thirds of whom had not been convicted of a crime.
When the Haiti earthquake hit in January 2010, nearly all the prisoners jailed at the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince escaped. Several died. More than 80 percent of those had not been charged with a crime.
A report from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in 2008 shows how many more unconvicted inmates may be stuck in Latin American prisons:
At the time of the Comayagua fire, an estimated 900 prisoners were held there, although the official capacity of the prison is just 400, Honduran news site Hondudiario reports.
Only 12 guards were on watch when the fire broke.
Overcrowding in prisons is an ongoing problem in Honduras, a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates. The prisoners at Comayagua also lived in deplorable conditions, with no medical or mental health care and less than $1 per day in food, the Guardian reports.
Latin America’s prisons have long been reported as inhumane. A New York Times reporter wrote in 1997: “Walking through a prison in Peru is like stepping into a Hieronymus Bosch triptych of hell.”
A July 2010 video report from inside a Honduran prison revealed its conditions:
Human rights groups are now calling on the Honduran government to reform its prison system, the Los Angeles Times reports.
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